The Pleasures of 2013
by Fiona Lehn
I’ve read, viewed and listened to gobs of stuff this year, and my two favourites by far are the science fiction television series Fringe, and the last work of the late, great, Christa Wolf, City of Angels or The Overcoat of Dr. Freud.
Christa Wolf, one of former East Germany’s most respected and revered writers, passed away in 2011 at the age of 82. Her writings spanned from documenting her adolescence in Hitler Youth to examining self-determinism for women in a fascist society, to feminist retellings of the tales of Medea and Kassandra of Troy. Her last book, City of Angels, or The Overcoat of Dr. Freud, was published in German a year before her death and released in English translation in February 2013. It has been billed as Christa Wolf’s last “autobiographical novel” by some and remains true to the introspective yet universal writing style Wolf developed over her long writing career.
Premise: following the reunification of Germany and subsequent dissolution of East Germany, Wolf spends a year in Los Angeles as a guest of the Center, a kind of creative think tank which offers nine-month residencies to “envelope-pushing” established writers, scholars, and artists from around the world.
Although Wolf admittedly doesn’t fulfill her purpose of writing a book while there, the notes from her life at the Center and in Los Angeles form the foundation of a book built with a circling, layered structure that sometimes reads as a journal, sometimes a mystery novel, sometimes as a dream. Only a master of craft such as Wolf could achieve simple clarity amidst such complexity.
Wolf is the speaker. Wolf is the protagonist. As an eighty-year-old woman who lived most of her life in East Germany now in Los Angeles (land of plenty yet also of many homeless) where she barely speaks enough English to get by, she has the reader’s sympathy from page one. When Stasi files are released that reveal Wolf’s participation as an informant, Wolf must question her own memory as well as her identity in the midst of a vicious media response. I’d always envisioned Wolf as solid and staunch, strong-willed, outspoken. But while reading this book I began to see her as a person very much afraid, who has been afraid for most of her life. In fact, it took the public outing of her Stasi files for her to stop being afraid.
The story is about self-determinism, facing fear, and fighting against forces larger than oneself. It examines loss of country and exile through the lens of one whose country no longer exists. Reading City of Angels, or The Overcoat of Dr. Freud elicited the same feeling in me as when I first read Wolf’s early novel The Quest for Christa T. over 20 years ago, and when I read her many works since then. Her struggles and themes somehow mirrored my own although I was half her age, product of a middle class Californian upbringing. Is that the universal secret of her success? That she somehow speaks to everyone in this way? Or is it merely my link to her—one that is somehow forged despite our cultural, age, and experiential differences? I suppose it is her ability to tap into the pulse of humanity, really, the thing every great writer achieves.
In the science fiction tv series Fringe (2008-2013), Agent Olivia Dunham works in “Fringe Division,” investigating cases outside of the FBI’s general scope. Dunham’s team consists of FBI agent Astrid Farnsworth, genius and mad scientist Walter Bishop, and his con-artist son Peter Bishop. Over five seasons, they discover and explore parallel universes, time travel, and supernatural and scientific phenomena. Overarching themes include the moral and ethical responsibilities of scientists, the effects of childhood trauma on people throughout their lives, romantic and familial love, free will versus destiny, and the challenges a female agent faces in a male-dominated world.
I’ve enjoyed the influx of feminist science fiction television series over the past few years, including shows such as Sanctuary and Warehouse 13. I hope it is a trend that will become the norm. As its name indicates, however, Fringe stands outside the norm. This is in part because the cast, lead by Anna Torv and featuring Blair Brown and John Noble, delivers compelling and touching performances. It’s also because they are given so much to work with—intriguing plots, complex characters, first-rate dialogue and production values. The narrative arc from season one through season five brings the viewer back to where she began.
Like all great art, Wolf’s final work and the epic Fringe series gift their audience with a deeper understanding of self and the world. (This isn’t my puniest Aqueduct review, I gotta say. Serious art requires serious words, I guess.) Happy viewing, reading, listening, and mbling along the aqueduct, and all the best in 2014!
Fiona Lehn made her first professional sale of fiction in 2008 when “The
Assignment of Runner ETI” won third place in the Writers of the Future
contest. From 1993 to 2006, she co-produced several CDs of her original
songs and performed across the U.S. From 2007 to 2011, Lehn served on
the editorial collective of Room, Canada's oldest feminist literary
magazine. Though Fiona grew up in Stockton, CA and is a graduate of the
University of California at Santa Cruz, she lives now in Vancouver, BC
as a Canadian citizen. Aqueduct Press published her novella The Last Letter as a volume in its Conversation Pieces series in 2011.